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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Dino Kahaulelio’s mother died of cancer Monday morning, and the 17-year-old high school junior sought solace at the homecoming of another family.

Cardinal Newman High School students returned to campus Monday, more than three months after the Tubbs fire heavily damaged the school north of Santa Rosa. For Kahaulelio and other hundreds of student, faculty and staff that returned, it was long-awaited, and much appreciated.

Kahaulelio said his mother, who graduated in the late 70s from the now-shuttered sister school Ursuline High, would have wanted him there.

“Newman isn’t really a school,” he said. “It’s a family.”

Students were eager to reunite with their friends after having been split up by grade level onto four different parishes across Sonoma County in the wake of October’s wildfires. Monday, faculty, staff and diocese officials welcomed them back with a special ceremony in the gym, followed by a pasta lunch.

“You understand better than anyone that a school is a community of people,” Principal Graham Rutherford said during the event. “You didn’t break. You didn’t quit; and we were able to be back here — one school undivided.”

Monday served as an orientation, allowing students to catch up and explore the new campus layout and portable classrooms. Classes resume Tuesday.

Junior Avery Cargill, 17, who plays on the girls varsity basketball team, was relieved when she learned in October the gym survived the fire that destroyed 19 classrooms, the main office, counseling office, library, and baseball and soccer fields.

“This is my second home,” she said. “We won the school’s first state championship. All our accomplishments and trophies are here.”

She and other juniors temporarily moved to Rohnert Park’s St. Elizabeth Seton Church as crews cleared fire debris and set up new portables around the gym. Seniors traveled to St. Joseph’s Church in Cotati, while freshmen and sophomores had classes at Santa Rosa’s Resurrection Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Windsor, respectively.

She and her classmates didn’t mind returning to portables. They simply were happy to be on the same campus.

“It’s great to be back together, again,” senior Nicholas Hall said. “We’re ready to finish up the year strong.”

Hall lives just minutes from the school. When the campus was split, he had to wake up an hour earlier to get his brother, a sophomore, to Windsor before driving down to Cotati for class. Although it was a long commute, Hall said he got to know the other seniors better at St. Joseph’s, where the recreation room was partitioned into separate classroom spaces.

“We had a bunch of cafeteria tables set up and dividers,” he said.

Bishop Robert Vasa commended the 600 students for their resilience and ability to deal with all the changes of being spread throughout the county.

“The fact you were able to leave this campus under adverse conditions and be scattered into four different locations, and to do that with grace, dignity and without complaining is a tribute to your virtue,” he said before offering the campus a blessing.

Officials also recognized local fire responders, including Rincon Valley Fire Capt. Mark Dunn, who along his crew and other local firefighters made a determined stand against the Tubbs fire, preventing it from completely destroying Cardinal Newman and the adjacent Saint Rose Catholic School, which also reopened with a similar ceremony Monday.

The parochial K-8 school survived the fire but later suffered heavy damage when the fire protection sprinklers flooded the main building after being repressurized. Its 260 students temporarily were moved to the original St. Rose School campus in downtown Santa Rosa after the fires.

“This is what it’s all about,” Dunn said, looking around students gathered in the Cardinal Newman gym. “This is why we do what we do.”

Despite all the changes and inconveniences, families stuck around, Cardinal Newman president Laura Held said. She said the school’s enrollment only lost 15 students due to the fires.

“Students and families didn’t give up,” Held said after the ceremony. “Families could have chosen other alternatives, but they didn’t.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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